Napa man's dream comes true: 60 playgrounds before he turns 90



By DOUG ERNST / Napa Valley Correspondent

Known for decades as Napa’s Hallmark card store owner, Jim Roberts also earned a reputation for public service with the Kiwanis Club, which he has loved for nearly 60 years.

The past 16 of those years, Roberts has spurred fellow club members to build playgrounds in schools, parks and even private and nonprofit child care centers.

“I love working with kids – and special kids – and looking at their faces when they see a new playground,” said Roberts, who turns 88 in October.

Over the years, Roberts let it be known he wanted to finish 60 playground projects before the age of 90.

“Isn’t this great?” he said during construction last weekend of the club’s 60th playground at West Park Elementary School, which celebrated its 60th birthday last week.

Roberts said he can’t explain where his enthusiasm for swings and slides comes from. He only knows that he feels great providing joy for kids.

“I see a need and figure out how to take care of that need.”

His investment in young people extends beyond playgrounds, to high schools.

At Chamberlain High School, a continuation school for students who function well outside the mainstream, Roberts is known for organizing fishing trips and other outings.

“They call me grandpa,” he said.

“I know that some of the kids have gone through some awful things, and that they would have gone further down without Chamberlain and Liberty High rescuing them. I remember one of the kids who became a probation officer and now has a wife and two kids.”

Roberts said he thinks many people his age could find similar ways to help young people.

“Retired people have the time – all they need is the motivation,” said Roberts, who married his wife, Dorothy, 67 years ago.

“We’ve been together 70 years, since I asked her to go steady in U.S. history class,” said Roberts. “She was 16, I was 17.”

Roberts graduated high school, joined the Air Force near the end of World War II, and married Dorothy. He went right into business, managing a store in Concord for several years until he heard about a store for sale in St. Helena.

Jim and Dorothy moved with their two sons to St. Helena in 1953 and Jim joined the St. Helena Kiwanis Club the next year. He switched to the Napa club in 1959, opened the Hallmark card store in Bel Aire Plaza and ran it for 35 years until he retired in 1994. He served as a Napa Chamber of Commerce Ambassador for 50 years.

Today, Jim and Dorothy enjoy spending as much time as possible with their three sons and one daughter, along with nine grandchildren.

Fellow Kiwanian Ken Fehring recalled his first impression of Roberts when he joined the club in 1992.

“I found this guy who really has a heart and appreciates help, but doesn’t demand it from anybody,” Fehring recalled. “When he found out that a kid got hurt on a playground he got a few people together and fixed it. He found a need and found a way. I learned that you’d better get out of his way or he’ll roll over you.”

Fehring said Roberts is especially fond of special-needs children, organizing a half-dozen outings every year.

“Jim is invested in kids who can’t do things for themselves; he reaches down to kids who need a hand up, not a handout; he’s going to do something they enjoy, like experiencing San Francisco or flying a kite for the first time. He’s really amazing.”

During each playground project, Roberts can be spotted on the morning of construction, making sure every nut has a bolt and a washer and finding a job for every volunteer. Although the West Park equipment was financed by Community Projects Inc. of Napa and donations from West Park Family Club, much of the cost was reduced thanks to volunteer labor.

For Roberts, it’s a labor of love, said Fehring.

“Jim’s in charge, he gets people shade, he gets them water, he’s out Friday evening with the posts and out again Saturday doing the construction, out Sunday doing cleanup and then on Monday he’s out seeing the kids play. That’s his upper, seeing the kids play.”

Roberts is quick to credit hundreds of Napa Kiwanis Club members for the 60 playgrounds that have been built over the past 16 years, and he would not want to take credit for the many hours that go into planning and constructing them, with the help of school and city workers.

But, said Fehring, “it will take about six or seven Kiwanians to replace Jim.”